Japanese star anise looks very similar to Chinese star anise in its dried form but that is where the similarity ends. The Japanese star anise is extremely toxic and is not edible in any form.
The scientific name for this lovely plant is llicium anisatum. It is categorized as a shrub, although it may get from 20 to 30 feet tall in the right growing conditions.
It prefers full sun or partial shade and a warm climate, doing best in USDA gardening zones 8 through 10. The shrub produces flowers and fruit which look almost exactly like the culinary anise. In fact, when the fruit is dried it can't be distinguished from the edible star anise. The only way to tell if it is the poison type is by chemical tests in a lab.
Uses for Japanese Star Anise
Japanese star anise should never be ingested in any form. Some of the illnesses and warnings associated with drinking anise tea are thought to have occurred because Japanese anise was used instead or the tea had been adulterated with Japanese star anise.
The Japanese variety is known as shikimi and is traditionally burned as incense. In order to burn the anise properly it is placed over burning coals in a fireproof container. Lighting it directly will not be effective because the fire will continuously go out.
The smoldering anise will fill a room with its sweet scent in a very short period of time. Some people consider anise incense to have both cleansing and aphrodisiac properties.
Side Effects Japanese Anise
While you should never ingest any form of Japanese anise intentionally, there have been cases of culinary anise being contaminated with its toxic cousin. In 2003 the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning encouraging consumers to stay away from all anise teas. This was done because 40 people, including 15 infants, showed signs of illness after being given anise tea.
Normally, anise tea is given for colic, gas, and other digestive upsets. It appeared that somehow the Japanese anise was included in with the Chinese anise in the tea. Since that time, the FDA has been monitoring imports of star anise more closely to ensure that Japanese anise is not being labeled for use as a food product.
Symptoms of toxicity caused by the Japanese star anise are:
- Inflammation of the urinary tract
- Inflammation of the digestive tract
- Kidney problems
Symptoms generally show themselves within six hours of ingestion, beginning with diarrhea and vomiting. When no medical care is sought for these primary symptoms the patient will ultimately die from paralysis of the respiratory system.
If you have recently eaten an anise product and you experience any symptoms of illness you should go immediately to your doctor or emergency room.
Japanese anise contains several toxic compounds that are not found in the Chinese star anise.
Using Chinese Star Anise
Star anise is wonderful in different foods, beverages, and for use as an herbal remedy. Since 2003 the United States government has been more proactive in ensuring that the two star anise species don't get mixed up in food products.
Make sure that you buy star anise or star anise tea from a reputable company that you know and trust. Teas manufactured in the United States would be better than a tea imported from Japan or China, for example. There is no reason to stop using anise products as long as you take reasonable precautions.